Hercule Poirot would not be impressed.
Agatha Christie’s fictional detective would likely scoff at my lack of details. I can’t recall just when my gray cells hatched the idea of riding the famous Orient Express train — called the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, or VSOE — to celebrate my wife’s and my 50th anniversary.
Our goal was to create a milestone memory, and Europe’s legendary luxury train fit the bill. Joyce is a longtime Christie fan, and we both enjoyed the 1974 film version of her “Murder on the Orient Express,” starring Albert Finney as the mustachioed Belgian detective. We also have enjoyed rail trips on both sides of the Atlantic.
One exception was a short, slow trip aboard a weary passenger train operating out of Spooner, Wis. It included dinner, breakfast and an overnight stay aboard a stationary passenger car. I considered it quaint and whimsical. Joyce prefers elegance to whimsy. I figured I owed her one.
And so we settled on a two-day, one-night trip on the VSOE from London to Venice, considering it a fine climax to a bus tour of Scotland, Wales and England. We didn’t expect the little mystery that came with the adventure.
The journey began on a sunny September day at London’s grand Victoria Station, where we caught a connecting train. At Victoria, we joined a queue to check most of our luggage at a private lounge operated by Belmond, a British travel company that runs the trains.
À la Poirot, we also checked the other waiting passengers. Most were seniors, speaking various languages. Some arrived in dashing ’20s-style attire, reflecting the spirit of the trip.
Shortly before our 9:45 a.m. departure, crisply uniformed attendants guided us along the platform to a vintage Belmond Pullman train. For the next three hours it carried us, as we sipped Champagne and noshed on pastries and fruit, through graffitied London suburbs, pastoral landscapes and beneath chalky cliffs on England’s southeast coast. From there, a plush motor coach carried us to the coast of the English Channel, where it eased onto a covered flatbed train — with us still aboard — for the 31-mile trip in the Chunnel, connecting England and France. A half-hour later, we climbed off at a transfer point near the French town of Calais.
And there it was: a string of dark blue and gold-trimmed coaches with crew members in uniforms lined up, hands behind backs. In front of them, an oval welcome mat bearing the VSOE logo.
Inside, the dark, highly polished woodwork in our restored 1925 coach featured inlaid marquetry. The bench seat in each cabin was covered in plush upholstery. Fresh flowers were everywhere — on tables, in the bathrooms, on the piano in the lounge.
Chrome-finished handles were spotless. Hallways and cabins were carpeted. Vintage light fixtures added to the 1920s ambience.
Our steward gave us a quick tour of our tiny cabin — about the same size as our Spooner compartment but rising far above it on the elegance scale. (Thank goodness.) He pointed out buttons and switches for a small fan and lights, and said he would convert our bench seat and bolsters that night into bunk beds. Other amenities included a corner floor-to-ceiling cabinet containing a sink, mirror and toiletries; a small, semicircular table with a fold-up tray, and a small table lamp with a pink scalloped shade.
I noted a locked door into an adjoining cabin that could have turned it into a suite.
The steward pointed to the bar and dining cars and a shared toilet at the front end of our coach. He also asked which seating time we preferred for dinner.
Tuxedos at dinner
At 5:19 p.m., our train — how quickly we adopted the possessive — began to roll. From then until dusk, northern France flowed by, flat cropland interrupted by small towns with at least one prominent church steeple in each. The only interruptions were the startlingly loud rushes of other trains speeding in the opposite direction on a parallel track that seemed inches away.
Because we were allowed only one small overnight bag in our cabin, we had decided not to bring the formal duds that the train company suggested for the evening meal. A blue sports jacket and tie sufficed for me; Joyce wore a long dress. Even so, it was easy to feel underdressed as we ambled to L’Orientale dining car through rows of be-gowned and be-tuxed swells.
Menu choices at dinner and lunch the next day were in French, with English translations. Examples: Sautéed duck foie gras tossed in Muscat wine. Iced blue Brittany lobster consommé with caviar de Venise. Potato trilogy: roasted, violet and with saffron. Dark chocolate pyramid with banana confit and vanilla custard. Dishes were served on fine china, on white tablecloths with silver utensils. Poirot’s mustache would have quivered in anticipation.
Our dinner companions were a pleasant British couple, and we exchanged civil conversation about our countries’ current vagaries — the Brits’ Brexit vote and the U.S. presidential campaign. The woman was celebrating her birthday, and, to her surprise, dessert was a life-size purse made of chocolate and topped with candles.
After our long day, we decided to forgo live piano music in the lounge and instead to turn in — or, in my case, climb up into the upper bunk. Our cabin was warm, and I lowered the window a bit, making the rail noise louder but pleasantly white.
Unlike Poirot, we heard no thumps or moans from adjacent cabins as the Orient Express pushed through the dark. But there were several short stops during the night at stations whose lighting resembled an Edward Hopper painting. Passengers from those trains walked down the platform, noticed our grand train and stopped to gawk and take photos.
By morning we were rolling through Switzerland and northern Italy.
Stewards delivered breakfast (juice, pastries, fruit and coffee) and alerted us to stunning views of mountains, lakes and valleys draped in mist. The advisories drew some passengers into the outer passageway wearing knee-length blue and white robes provided in each cabin.
A turn at the piano
Comfortably breakfasted, I made an unconventional request of our steward.
“Back home,” I said, “I play piano professionally. Any chance I might take a short turn at the baby grand in the lounge car?”
He was unfazed. “I’ll set it up with the attendant,” he said. “Just wait a few minutes.”
The barkeeper was indeed welcoming, waving me to the keyboard. I spent an hour playing old standards and show tunes. Passengers seemed pleased, and later that afternoon one crew member acknowledged me as “the piano player.” It was a surprising thrill that underscored the train line’s claim of superior service.
After lunch in the dining car, we intermittently relaxed, read and napped through the afternoon until the announcement of our impending arrival in Venice. The train slowed as it crossed the long bridge across the lagoon. We packed our overnight bag, tipped our accommodating steward and at 5:25 p.m. stepped off our rolling hotel at the Santa Lucia station.
This is where the mystery sets in.
A representative of our travel agent led several of us through the station to a water taxi on the Grand Canal. For the next 20 minutes, she stayed with us as we motored beneath the warm descending Venetian sun. We dodged heavy canal traffic past ornate, centuries-old palaces, under graceful bridges and beside open-air restaurants. She seemed to flirt a bit with the driver — or he with her — until, about 20 minutes later, we reached a dock next to the Europa hotel, not far from St. Mark’s Square.
After signing in, we found, to our surprise, that the luggage we had checked in the station at London was waiting in the hotel lobby. We’d been told the bags would be transported not by train but by truck.
The Orient Express had not dawdled. It rolled along at a steady clip for about 27 hours with only a few short stops.
How had our bags arrived before us? It remains for us a minor mystery. Hercule?
Dan Wascoe is a retired Star Tribune reporter and columnist.